A heat stable protein essentail for microtubule assembly has been isolated. This protein, which we designate tau (tau), is present in association with tubulin purified from porcine brain by repeated cycles of polymerization. Tau is separated from tubulin by ion exchange chromatography on phosphocellulose. In the absence of tau, tubulin exists entirely as a 6S dimer of two polypeptide chains (alpha and beta tubulin) with a molecular weight of 120,000, which will not assemble into microtubules in vitro. Addition of tau completely restores tubule-forming capacity. Under nonpolymerizing conditions, tau converts 6S dimers to 36S rings-structures which have been implicated as intermediates in tubule formation. Hence, tau appears to act on the 6S tubulin dimer, activating it for polymerization. The unique ability of tau to restore the normal features of in vitro microtubule assembly makes it likely that tau is a major regulator of microtubule formation in cells.